SIR WALTER SCOTT (attrib.) (1771–1832)

The elegant and fascinating productions which honoured the name of novel, those which Richardson, Mackenzie, and Burney gave to the public; of which it was the object to exalt virtue and degrade vice; to which no fault could be objected unless that they unfitted here and there a romantic mind for the common intercourse of life, while they refined perhaps a thousand whose faculties could better bear the fair ideal which they presented – these have entirely vanished from the shelves of the circulating library. It may indeed be fairly alleged in defence of those who decline attempting this higher and more refined species of composition, that the soil was in some degree exhausted by over-cropping – that the multitude of base and tawdry imitations obscured the merit of the few which are tolerable, as the overwhelming blaze of blue, red, green, and yellow, at the Exhibition [i.e. the Royal Academy], vitiates our taste for the few good paintings which show their modest hues upon its walls. The public was indeed weary of the protracted embarrassments of lords and ladies who spoke such language as was never spoken, and still more so of the see-saw correspondence between the sentimental Lady Lucretia and the witty Miss Caroline, who battledored it in the pathetic and the lively, like Morton and Reynolds on the stage. But let us be just to dead and to living merit. In some of the novels of the late Charlotte Smith we found no ordinary portion of that fascinating power which leads us through every various scene of happiness or distress at the will of the author; which places the passions of the wise and grave for a time at the command of ideal personages; and perhaps has more attraction for the public at large than any other species of literary composition, the drama not excepted. Nor do we owe less to Miss Edgeworth, whose true and vivid pictures of modern life contain the only sketches reminding us of the human beings, whom, secluded as we are, we have actually seen and conversed with in various parts of this great metropolis. . . .
          ‘Plunging from depth to depth a vast profound,’ we at length imagined ourselves arrived at the Limbus Patrum [place of the righteous] in good earnest. The imitators of Mrs. Radcliffe and Mr. Lewis were before us; personages, who to all the faults and extravagancies of their originals, added that of dulness, with which they can seldom be charged. We strolled through a variety of castles, each of which was regularly called Il Castello; met with as many captains of condottieri; heard various ejaculations of Santa Maria and Diavolo; read by a decaying lamp, and in a tapestried chamber, dozens of legends as stupid as the main history; examined such suites of deserted apartments as might fit up a reasonable barrack; and saw as many glimmering lights as would make a respectable illumination – Amid these flat imitations of the Castle of Udolpho we lighted unexpectedly upon the work which is the subject of the present article, and, in defiance of the very bad taste in which it is composed, we found ourselves insensibly involved in the perusal, and at times impressed with no common degree of respect for the powers of the author. We have at no time more earnestly desired to extend our voice to a bewildered traveller, than towards this young man, whose taste is so inferior to his powers of imagination and expression, that we never saw a more remarkable instance of genius degraded by the labour in which it is employed. It is the resentment and regret which we experience at witnessing the abuse of these qualities, as well as the wish to hazard a few remarks upon the romantic novel in general, which has induced us (though we are obliged to go back a little) to offer our criticism on the Fatal Revenge, or the House of Montorio [pub. 1807].
          It is scarcely possible to abridge the narrative, nor would the attempt be edifying or entertaining. A short abstract of the story is all for which we can afford room. . . .
          The history of these mysterious brethren is told by the officer who had recognized them, and runs briefly thus: Orazio, Count of Montorio – for we begin our story with the explanation, which in the original concludes it – possessed of wealth, honours, and ancestry, is married to a beautiful woman, whom he loves doatingly, but of whose affections he is not possessed. A villainous brother instils into his mind jealousy of a cavalier to whom the Countess had formerly been attached. Orazio causes the supposed paramour to be murdered in the presence of the lady, who also dies: he then flies from his country with the feelings of desperation thus forcibly described:

‘My reason was not suspended, it was totally changed. I had become a kind of intellectual savage; a being that, with the malignity and depravation of inferior natures, still retains the reason of a man, and retains it only for his curse. Oh! that midnight darkness of the soul, in which it seeks for something whose loss has carried away every sense but one of utter and desolate privation; in which it traverses leagues in motion and worlds in thought, without consciousness of relief, yet with a dread of pausing. I had nothing to seek, nothing to recover; the whole world could not restore me an atom, could not shew me again a glimpse of what I had been or lost; yet I rushed on as if the next step would reach shelter and peace.’ Vol. iii. p. 380.

          In this manic state he reaches an uninhabited islet in the Grecian archipelago, where, from a conversation accidentally overheard between two assassins sent by his brother to murder him, the wretched Orazio learns the innocence of his victims, and the full extent of his misery. He contrives to murder the murderers, and the effect of the subsequent discovery upon his feelings is described in a strain of language which we were alternately tempted to admire as sublime and to reprobate as bombastic.
          Orazio determines on revenge, and his plan is diabolically horrid. He resolved to accomplish the murder of his treacherous brother, who in consequence of his supposed death had not assumed the honours of the family; and he farther determined that this act of vengeance should be perpetrated by the hands of that very brother’s own sons, two amiable youths, who had no cloud upon their character excepting an attachment to mysterious studies, and a strong propensity to superstition.
          We do not mean to trace this agent of vengeance through the various devices and strategems by which he involved in his toils his unsuspecting nephews, assumed in their apprehension the character of an infernal agent, and decoyed them first to meditate upon, and at length actually to perpetrate, the parricide which was the crown and summit of his wishes. The doctrine of fatalism, on which he principally relied for reconciling his victims to his purpose, is in various passages detailed with much gloomy and terrific eloquence. The rest of his machinery is composed of banditti, caverns, dungeons, inquisitors, trap-doors, ruins, secret passages, soothsayers, and all the usual accoutrements from the property-room of Mrs. Radcliffe. The horror of the piece is completed by the murderer discovering that the youths whom he has taken such pains to involve in parricide are not the sons of his brother, but his own offspring by his unfortunate wife. We do not dwell upon any of these particulars, because the observations which we have to hazard upon his neglected novel apply to a numerous class of the same kind, and because the incidents are such as are to be found in most of them.
          In the first place, then, we disapprove of the mode introduced by Mrs. Radcliffe, and followed by Mr. Murphy [Maturin used the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy] and her other imitators, of winding up their story with a solution by which all the incidents appearing to partake of the mystic and marvellous are resolved by very simple and natural causes. This seems, to us, to savour of the precaution of Snug the Joiner [in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream]; or, rather, it is as if the machinist, when the pantomime was over, should turn his scenes ‘the seamy side without,’ and expose the mechanical aids by which the delusions were accomplished. In one respect, indeed, it is worse management; because the understanding spectator might be in some degree gratified by the view of engines which, however rude, were well adapted to produce the effects which he had witnessed. But the machinery of the castle of Montorio, when exhibited, is wholly inadequate to the gigantic operations ascribed to it. There is a total and absolute disproportion between the cause and effect, which must disgust every reader much more than if he were left under the delusion of ascribing the whole to supernatural agency. This latter resource has indeed many disadvantages; some of which we shall briefly notice. But it is an admitted expedient; appeals to the belief of all ages but our own; and still produces, when well managed, some effect even upon those who are most disposed to contemn its influence. We can therefore allow of supernatural agency to a certain extent and for an appropriate purpose, but we never can consent that the effect of such agency shall be finally attributed to natural causes totally inadequate to its production. We can believe, for example, in Macbeth’s witches, and tremble at their spells; but had we been informed, at the conclusion of the piece, that they were only three of his wife’s chamber-maids disguised for the purpose of imposing on the Thane’s credulity, it would have added little to the credibility of the story, and entirely deprived it of the interest. In like manner we fling back upon the Radcliffe school their flat and ridiculous explanations, and plainly tell them that they must either confine themselves to ordinary and natural events, or find adequate causes for those horrors and mysteries in which they love to involve us. Yet another word on this subject. We know not if a novel writer of the present day expects or desires his labours to be perused oftener than once; but as there may be here and there a maiden aunt in a family, for whose advantage it must be again read over by the young lady who has already devoured it in secret, we advise them to consider how much they suffer from their adherence to this unfortunate system. We will instance the incident of the black veil in the castle of Udolpho. Attention is excited, and afterwards recalled, by a hundred indirect artifices, to the dreadful and unexplained mystery which the heroine had seen beneath it; and which, after all, proves to be neither more nor less than a waxen doll. This trick may indeed for once answer the writer’s purpose; and has, we suppose, cost many an extra walk to the circulating library, and many a curse upon the malicious concurrent who always has the fourth volume in hand. But it is as impossible to re-peruse the book without feeling the contempt awakened by so pitiful a contrivance as it is for a child to regain his original respect for King Solomon after he has seen the monarch disrobed of all his glory, and deposited in the same box with Punch and his wife. And, in fact, we feel inclined to abuse the author in such a case as the watch do Harlequin, when they find out his trick of frightening them by mimicking the report of a pistol.

Faquin, maraud, pendard, impudent, temeraire,
          Vous osez nous faire peur!

          In the second place, we are of opinion that the terrors of this class of novel writers are too accumulated and unremitting. The influence of fear – and here we extend our observations as well to those romances which actually ground it upon supernatural prodigy as to those which attempt a subsequent explanation – is indeed a faithful and legitimate key to unlock every source of fancy and of feeling. Mr. Murphy’s introduction is expresed with the spirit and animation which, though often misdirected, pervade his whole work.

‘I question whether there be a source of emotion in the whole mental frame so powerful or universal as the fear arising from objects of invisible terror. Perhaps there is no other that has been, at some period or other of life the predominant and indelible sensation of every mind, of every class, and under every circumstance. Love, supposed to be the most general of passions, has certainly been felt in its purity by very few, and by some not at all, even in its most indefinite and simple state.
          ‘The same might be said, à fortiori, of other passions. But who is there that has never feared: Who is there that has not involuntarily remembered the gossip’s tale in solitude or in darkness? Who is there that has not sometimes shivered under an influence he would scarce acknowledge to himself? I might trace this passion to a high and obvious source.
          ‘It is enough for my purpose to assert its existence and prevalancy, which will scarcely be disputed by those who remember it. It is absurd to depreciate this passion, and deride its influence. It is not the weak and trivial impulse of the nursery, to be forgotten and scorned by manhood. It is the aspiration of a spirit; "it is the passion of immortals," that dread and desire of their final habitation.’ Pref. pp. 4 & 5.

          We grant there is much truth in this proposition taken generally. But the finest and deepest feelings are those which are most easily exhausted. The chord which vibrates and sounds at a touch, remains in silent tension under continued pressure. Besides, terror, as Bob Acres says of its counterpart, courage, will come and go; and few people can afford timidity enough for the writer’s purpose who is determined on ‘horrifying’ them through three thick volumes. The vivacity of the emotion also depends greatly upon surprize, and surprize cannot be repeatedly excited during the perusal of the same work. It is said, respecting the cruel punishment of breaking alive upon the wheel, the sufferer’s nerves are so much jarred by the first blow, that he feels comparatively little pain from those which follow. There is something of this in moral feeling; nor do we see a better remedy for it than to recommend the cessation of these experiments upon the public, until their sensibility shall have recovered its original tone. The taste for the marvellous has been indeed compared to the habit of drinking ardent liquors. But it fortunately differs in having its limits: he upon whom one dram does not produce the effect, can attain the desired degree of inebriation by doubling the dose. But when we have ceased to start at one ghost, we are callous to the exhibition of a whole Pandemonium. In short, the sensation is generally as transient as it is powerful, and commonly depends upon some slight circumstances which cannot be repeated.

The time has been our senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek, and our fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rise and stir
As life were in’t. We have supped full with horrors;
And direness, now familiar to our thoughts,
Cannot once start us.

          These appear to us the great disadvantages under which any author must at present struggle, who chuses supernatural terror for his engine of moving the passions. We dare not call them insurmountable, for how shall we dare to limit the efforts of genius, or shut against its possessor any avenue to the human heart, or its passions? Mr. Murphy himself, for aught we know, may be destined to shew us the prudence of this qualification. He possesses a strong and vigorous fancy, with great command of language. He has indeed regulated his incidents upon those of others, and therefore added to the imperfections which we have pointed out, the want of originality. But his feeling and conception of character are his own, and from these we judge of his powers. In truth we rose from his strange chaotic novel romance as from a confused and feverish dream, unrefreshed, and unamused, yet strongly impressed by many of the ideas which had been so vaguely and wildly presented to our imagination.

[SOURCE: Review of Maturin’s Fatal Revenge; or, the Family of Montorio, Quarterly Review, 3 (May 1810), pp. 339–47]

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